By Alex Miceli
NEW YORK – On the first day of spring, Tiger Woods finally came out of hibernation.
Woods appeared Monday at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square in midtown Manhattan to sign a few hundred copies of his new book, “The 1997 Masters: My Story.” It was his first public appearance since early February, when he withdrew from the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
Woods’ WD after a first-round 77 in Dubai, continuing back spasms and a decision not to play last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, an event that he has won eight times, all had been communicated on his website or via social media.
So, when Woods committed to a book signing, I wanted to see him for myself. What I saw was a surprisingly jovial and accommodating Woods. He made the 300 or so customers who bought his book feel welcome and likely fans for life.
Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, said via e-mail that Woods would have no time to speak with me, so I took my questions to the customers.
Mark Bell, a United Parcel Service driver from Chicopee, Mass., brought his wife and two children to New York so that 5-year-old son Jackson could meet Woods. Bell wanted to make the experience special and be first in line. He arrived at 8:30 p.m. Sunday and stayed onsite while his family slept in a nearby hotel, waiting until the bookstore opened at 9 a.m.
“It’s one of those things,” Bell said. “How many times do you get to meet Tiger Woods?”
It would prove to be a familiar refrain. Fans braved the 30-degree temperatures in a line that wrapped east along 17th Street, north for a city block on Park Avenue and then back west on 18th Street.
“I never got Tiger’s autograph before,” said Lon Schmidt, a Delta Air Lines pilot who flew from his home in Las Vegas. “Never even got close to him, so that's kind of one of the reasons I wanted to come out here, to at least see him in person close up and get a good autograph.”
Others shared similar sentiments. Russell Clark of Maryland brought his 7-year-old son, Solomon. Hunter, a 31-year-old firefighter from Pittsburgh who declined to give his last name, took a Greyhound bus Sunday night, arriving at 9:30 and sleeping on the pavement to get a chance at Woods’ signature.
Initially, the store limited each person in line to one book for purchase and autograph. After a second shipment arrived at 10:30, customers were allowed to buy a second copy in time for the autograph session.
Woods arrived shortly after 12:30, to applause and a sea of cellphone photos. With a smile that hadn’t been seen at golf tournaments in seemingly a long time, Woods sat down, saying thank you to the partisan crowd.
The rules for the session were outlined by a bookstore manager: Turn to a certain page in the book for the autograph; no personalization; no signing of anything other than the book.
In short, come up, get the book signed and walk off stage left.
Surprisingly, Woods was the one who seemed to ignore the rules. He smiled, signed, engaged in some chitchat and, in the case of little Jackson, the 5-year-old from Chicopee, Mass., signed a TW-logoed Nike cap.
For someone who has covered Woods since before his professional debut in 1996, this was a foreign experience. It left me to wonder how much more popular he could have been had he acted this way for the past two decades.
“I suffer back pain, so I expressed that maybe he should get acupuncture, and he says that he does try it and he enjoys it,” an anonymous autograph seeker said of his conversation with Woods.
Woods struck up an unsolicited sports discussion with a Pittsburgh Steelers fan named Nick who was wearing a South Carolina Gamecocks sweatshirt.
“He looked at my hat and said, ‘Oh, you're from Pittsburgh,’ and he said, ‘Oh, how's your boy (Ben) Roethlisberger?’ I said, ‘Oh, doing good.’ He goes, ‘Your boy (Le’Veon) Bell had surgery.’ I said, ‘Yeah. They’ve got the team to do it next year.’ And he said, ‘Nice sweatshirt,’ because the Gamecocks won (in NCAA basketball) last night.”
As each person left the autograph area, the ratings for Woods’ performance proved to be universal and memorable.
“It was awesome,” said Schmidt, the Delta pilot who was heading home to Las Vegas on a 3:30 p.m. flight. “He's a larger-than-life personality. First time I ever met him and talked to him. And he did a great job of signing. He looked like he really enjoyed being here. Whether he actually did enjoy it or not, he sure made us feel like he did so. It was a great time, well worth coming out early, and I would do it again next weekend.”
Woods offered no insight about when he might return to professional golf, but few in the bookstore seemed to care. On this day, they got all that they could have wanted, and then some.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli